Propane heaters are a popular way to heat homes and workspaces during the colder months. However, there are concerns about whether using propane heaters indoors could lead to dangerous carbon monoxide poisoning. In this article, we'll examine how propane heaters work, whether they produce carbon monoxide, and steps you can take to use propane heaters safely.
What is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas that is produced when fuels such as propane, natural gas, oil, wood, or charcoal burn inefficiently and incompletely. Breathing in carbon monoxide is extremely dangerous because it binds to hemoglobin in the blood, preventing oxygen from being transported in the body. This can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and even death in high concentrations.
What are the Dangers of Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is often called the "silent killer" because it is impossible to see, taste, or smell. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 400 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning every year. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. High levels of exposure can cause loss of consciousness, brain damage, and death. Those most at risk are the elderly, infants, pregnant women, and people with heart or lung disease.
How do Propane Heaters Work?
Propane heaters work by burning propane gas to produce heat. Liquid propane is stored in a tank and converted to gas which is then ignited by a pilot light. This controlled flame heats and circulates air in the surrounding space through convection. There are several types of propane heaters:
- Portable propane heaters are small, movable units meant for temporary indoor heating.
- Propane furnaces are central heating systems designed for whole home heating by distributing warm air through ductwork.
- Propane fireplaces and stoves provide more directed heating and ambiance with an open flame design.
In properly functioning propane appliances, propane burns cleanly and efficiently, producing water vapor and carbon dioxide as byproducts.
Do Propane Heaters Produce Carbon Monoxide?
When used and maintained correctly, propane heaters do not significantly produce carbon monoxide. Complete combustion converts nearly all carbon atoms in propane to carbon dioxide.
However, several situations can lead toincomplete combustion and carbon monoxide production:
- Insufficient air supply - Without enough oxygen, carbon monoxide is produced instead of carbon dioxide. Indoor spaces need adequate ventilation.
- Faulty equipment - Problems like cracked heat exchangers, blocked chimneys/vents, and leaks can interfere with proper ventilation.
- Improper use - Not following safety guidelines like operating a propane heater in an unventilated tent or garage increases CO risk.
So while propane heaters themselves don't inherently produce unsafe CO levels, improper use or faulty equipment may result in dangerous carbon monoxide buildup.
Are Propane Heaters Safe Indoors?
Portable propane heaters are designed for temporary indoor use only if adequate ventilation is provided. According to the manufacturer Mr. Heater, a 40,000 BTU propane heater consumes 32 cubic feet of air per minute. This means you need a room with at least 320 square feet of space and an air supply. Never use propane heaters in enclosed spaces like tents or garages.
Vented propane furnaces and fireplaces are safe for indoor use because they are designed to exhaust all combustion gases outside through a chimney or vent pipe. Annual inspections by an HVAC technician help ensure your system is operating safely and up to code.
How to Use Propane Heaters Safely?
The key steps for safely using propane heaters indoors include:
- Place portable propane heaters on a stable, level surface at least 3 feet away from people, furniture, curtains or other flammables.
- Maintain a 40 square foot space between multiple portable heaters so they don't compete for oxygen.
- Run propane heaters in a room with doors and windows opened to allow fresh air circulation. Don't block air supply vents.
- Situate propane tanks at least 5 feet away from heaters and never transport/change propane tanks indoors.
- Install and maintain carbon monoxide detectors near all sleeping areas and propane appliances.
- Have qualified professionals inspect/clean propane furnaces, gas fireplaces, chimneys and vents annually. Repair any issues immediately.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions for safe operation of all propane heaters.
- Never leave portable propane heaters running unattended or while sleeping.
What are the Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
Carbon monoxide is dangerous because exposure can easily go unnoticed until health problems arise. Symptoms depend on the level and duration of exposure but may include:
- Dizziness, weakness, fainting
- Nausea, vomiting
- Rapid breathing and heart rate
- Confusion, impaired cognition
- Chest pain, tightness
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
In severe cases, people may experience seizures, irregular heartbeat, respiratory arrest, and death. Physical symptoms are related to oxygen deprivation in organs and tissues. Those most vulnerable to CO poisoning are fetuses, infants, elderly people, and those with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions.
What Should You Do If You Suspect Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
If you or someone else is experiencing common symptoms of CO poisoning with no other apparent cause:
- Evacuate the area immediately and call 911. Tell the operator you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Seek fresh air by going outside or opening doors/windows. Avoid going back inside the contaminated area.
- Get medical attention as soon as possible, even if symptoms clear up. CO exposure can cause long-term health issues.
- Turn off any appliances suspected of leaking carbon monoxide. Do not operate them again until they are inspected and confirmed safe by professionals.
- Only re-enter the area once emergency responders confirm it is safe to do so.
- Consider investing in carbon monoxide detectors/alarms if you do not already have them.
How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
You can take several precautions to prevent carbon monoxide exposure when using propane appliances:
- Install CO detectors on every floor near bedrooms according to manufacturer standards. Replace batteries every 6 months. If you're renting a home or apartment, it's a good idea to bring your portable carbon monoxide detectors. While the property should have them installed, having your own can ensure you have functioning detectors that you trust.
- Have qualified technicians inspect propane heaters, furnaces, chimneys, flues and vents annually before cold weather sets in. Request written documentation.
- Never use propane heaters, grills, generators indoors or in enclosed spaces like tents, garages or sheds.
- Open flues fully before running propane fireplaces and water heaters.
- Keep air vents, chimney openings and outside appliance exhausts clear of debris, snow, ice, leaves.
- Open windows slightly while running indoor propane appliances to allow air flow.
- Consider installing vented space heaters rather than unvented portable propane heaters indoors.
- Follow manufacturer guidelines for safe operation and maintenance of propane heaters.
- Use propane appliances exactly as instructed and only for their intended purpose.
- Know signs and symptoms of CO poisoning and act quickly if you suspect exposure.
By understanding how to operate propane heaters safely and taking sensible precautions, you can effectively reduce the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning in your home or workspace. Maintaining propane appliances properly and using CO detectors provide added protection against this silent but preventable killer.